It’s Thursday morning, past eleven. I am sitting in a friend’s car with my computer on my lap in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, moving slowly alongside the lagoon, on our way to the University of
Grand Bassam, where I will teach three classes throughout the afternoon. Teach? Teach who?
Teach what? Teach how? And why teach?
This brings back memories of my early family years. Born in 1959, I grew up in France as the oldest one in a family of four children with a French father and a German mother. Both of them where committed followers of Christ and very consistently and seriously taught the four of us in the Christian faith. Every day, we would sit quietly around the table after the morning or evening meals, and listen to my father reading a passage of the Bible and trying to explain to us what it meant for our lives. It was generally a quiet and serious time, sometimes interrupted by a shriek from one of us girls as my mother was using that time to braid our hair before school. She had perfectly subdued victims then, as we were supposed to listen to my father’s Bible reading! This was not necessarily of my father’s taste, but what could you do when you had three girls to braid before school and four kids to send to school by 7:30am? When there was no school and we could get up later, it was my mother who did the morning devotions with us. We liked it better because she made the Biblical text more alive for us with appropriate tone of voice, gestures, songs, and fun. I can still remember how she taught us the story of Balaam with the donkey, imitating the donkey’s voice for example. After the Bible story and some songs, we would all kneel down and pray together. And we, children, got to pray as well.
I can still remember that it was after one of these devotional times that I had said to my mother that I wanted to give my life to the Lord. So we knelt down and prayed together. I must have been around 6 years old at that time. That is all I remember of that event. But since then, my life had a focus. I took the Lord’s Word very seriously and knew that there was no other alternative, but to give my life totally to the Lord. It was written in the Scriptures that we, children of God, needed to consecrate, i.e. set apart our lives for the Lord in response to His love for us. So I did – no big deal. Thus, I grew up with the sense that I was going to serve the Lord full-time. Somehow, I had the idea that, as a grown up woman, I would probably be able to do some secretarial work for a Christian agency or possibly also some translation work as I was good in languages.
As years went by, I seconded my father and did some of his secretarial work for him as he was one of the elders in the Brethren church we were attending. Weekends were also major fun days (most of the time). We would invite other families and single older ladies from church to share a meal together. Baking and preparing for Sunday was a family tradition and I was doing most of the baking with my mother. Due to my father’s position as an elder in the church and the hospitality my mother was engaged in, we often hosted very knowledgeable Bible teachers and it was our privilege (at least this is how I view it) to listen to these adult conversations about the different meanings of Scriptures and how they were to be applied to either individual or church life. It was a great learning time! We also enjoyed playing the family harmonium together while singing songs and hymns. As kids, we loved that! Sometimes as well, when we didn’t have visitors, we would accompany our parents to visit some old or sick person in the hospital. There too, we were listening to the words our parents were sharing and usually had to sing a couple of songs that we had memorized. Just imagine three girls often dressed the same way and a young boy shyly singing a song in the hope to please an old lady who was too weak to get up! This is how we were taught how to put our faith in practice as we were watching our parents and following them around.
As I went through my upper-elementary school years, and even in high school, I knew we were different. We dressed differently as girls, didn’t wear pants, and had long hair. We were going to church every Sunday with my parents, etc. and this was not what most of our school friends were about to do. However, we just believed our parents that this was pleasing to the Lord and that these worldly non-Christian people were missing out on something most important.
But there came a time in high school when I discovered that I could borrow fun books at the library. I loved reading – those books were just feeding into my imagination. So, beside the school novels that I took home from the school library, I took also some other novels home that my school friends had recommended to me. And I would read them at night, sometimes under my cover, or after homework, making sure that a schoolbook was open nearby on my desk so that if one of my parents would come upstairs and check on me, I could still pretend that I was studying. The reading went on and on. My mind and my imagination were taken up by those novels, and I couldn’t read fast enough to find out what was going to happen next. I started to realize that my mind was shifting and that my thoughts were not very focused anymore. It started to take me more and more energy to make sure my homework was done on time – something that was hardly questionable before. This went on for months, perhaps for a couple of years… until finally, during a church service, the following verses in the Sermon of the Mount were read: “If your right eye causes you to sin, puck it out and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell.” (Matt. 5:29
– New KJV) I was struck by that verse. I realized that all the novels that I had been reading were just eating up my thoughts and that they would lead me to lose my life. When I came home that night, I confessed my sin and asked the Lord for forgiveness and mercy to renew my thoughts. I also resolved not to read any more novels unless mandated by the school work. And all of a sudden, I realized that I was free – free to be who the Lord wanted me to be, without having all these stories running in my head. The Scriptures and my personal devotional times became more meaningful again and my heart was engaged in a new way to study the Scriptures. As I loved reading and studying, I began to ready and study all the Christian commentaries and books my father had in his library – and they were not few. This was the beginning of my first theological training!
A couple of years later, when I was eighteen, I was really looking for direction for my life as to my future. I knew that I wanted to serve the Lord and was hoping to work with some international Christian organization as an administrative officer. My teachers had encouraged me to apply to some of the best engineering schools as I was good in sciences and mathematics, and my mother was encouraging me to go into language studies in order to become a tri-lingual interpreter – the profession she had given up in order to raise us, her children, full-time. But God had other plans for me…
One Friday evening, as I was attending the church prayer meeting, I listened to the news that was shared as prayer requests. That evening, most of this news consisted of newsletters from several missionaries in Africa, all of them asking for additional people who would help in the task. The Lord’s Spirit struck my heart then. I can very vividly remember how, when we, as a church, had knelt down (that was the custom in that church). Prayers after prayers were rising that evening for the needs of those missionaries, until I very clearly heard that voice in my heart: “Martine, are you willing to go and serve me anywhere – even if it is in Africa?” I struggled for a while in my mind during that prayer meeting and finally gave in. “Yes, Lord, I am ready to go – even to Africa”. A very special peace descended on me, and joy filled my heart. The prayer meeting ended, and I went through the motions of greeting people, coming home with my father, and just doing the things I had to do. But my mind was somewhere else. I now knew what the Lord wanted from me: to be ready to serve him even in Africa. I didn’t share this with my parents or anyone else for a while, waiting for more specific confirmations regarding that direction. Little by little, I saw how the Lord confirmed this. I got more writing to do for my father and another elder from the church relating to Africa. Both of them had been getting more involved in missions in Francophone Africa and took trips to teach churches in Togo and Cameroon.
My high school senior year was ending in a couple of months and I still didn’t know exactly what to do the following fall. I had been accepted in several fairly reputable undergraduate schools, but didn’t know what to decide. I had also taken an entrance examination in a secretarial school that was also training trilingual executive secretaries. Although that was somewhat ‘below’ what everyone expected from me, I thought that gaining administrative and linguistic skills could be helpful in missions – I knew I was not going to go into the medical field; my sister who was next after me was. I was accepted in that school as one of their top students as well, but my mother seemed very unhappy about that choice. My relationship with her had really been deteriorating because of that. After a last discussion with her one morning, I decided to submit to her and give in – and get trained as a trilingual interpreter. So I wrote a letter to the secretarial school stating that I would not accept their offer, and took my motorbike to carry that letter to the secretarial school. On my way, somehow I didn’t pay attention to cars that had priority over me and got hit by a car. It was nothing serious, but enough to prevent me from sending that letter of resignation and to have to spend a couple of days in bed with contusions. I told my mother that I was carrying the letter of resignation to the secretarial school and both of us agreed that it was the Lord’s clear direction that I should attend that secretarial school and no other. She took my letter of acceptance herself to the school!
I graduated from that school two years later and was offered by the school director to teach administrative classes there, after my graduation, to groups of Togolese administrators who had come to get trained in more efficient administrative skills. This is when I formally started to teach – and realized how much I was enjoying it. The university in my city was opening its first class in the whole country in English and adult education. I registered right away as my job enabled me to take the classes at the same time. When I graduated with my bachelor’s degree in
Adult Education, I had already two years of very interesting experiences as an adult educator – and was enjoying it thoroughly. I talked with my parents, and especially with my father, about my desire to go into missions, but they thought that I was too young at the age of twenty-two, and none of us knew really what a single young woman like me could do in missions. So I stayed home and got several jobs as an adult educator for a year.
I was still praying about that Friday evening calling to missions… Our church denomination didn’t have any missionary training school, nor was it in their thinking to send a young lady for theological studies or anything like that. A female missionary could be a nurse or do some administration for a mission. I also really liked the idea of becoming a Bible translator – but their training school and agency was outside of our church denomination, so it was not an option, unfortunately (at least in my eyes).
I was now twenty-three. That summer, I went to Canada as a camp counselor for two months and decided to attend a major Bible conference for our church denomination in the United States. That was my very first time to go to the U.S. As I participated in that conference, it was announced that a Swiss missionary couple, whom I knew very well, was desperately looking for a teacher for their children for that very fall. I was overwhelmed. That was exactly what I could do! I already knew the family, and they were French speaking. I prayed about it. Before going back to France, my home country, two other times, I read in church announcements in Canada that this Swiss family was looking for a teacher. I wrote to my parents about it. As I got back home, we contacted the family and it seemed a real answer to their prayers. My home church gave me its blessing as well, and within less than three months, I was on the mission field in Eastern Zaire at that time, in a village in the middle of the rain forest, learning to survive with the basics, i.e. with no running water and no electricity, and mail maybe once a month with a missionary airplane.
These were very formative years for me. For the first time, I was away from my home environment and my home church for an extended period of time – and I actually discovered new freedoms. I was able to take more initiatives and enjoyed taking conversation classes with a Swahili tutor. Beside teaching the missionary children of that family and another one, my evenings were easily filled up with Swahili lessons, times in the village, sitting with and listening to the women in their outside kitchens and trying to understand them – and to build relationships in the village. I realized that being single was a blessing as a missionary: you didn’t have to stay home and take care of kids in the evenings – you could just sit out with the village people and get to know them and their customs much more easily. Three months after my arrival, I was teaching my first Sunday school lesson in Swahili to the children at the church. I had completely memorized it in Swahili. Although I felt I had a heavy accent, the ladies who were teaching with me were very encouraging. Little by little, I taught more and more in Swahili to Sunday school children and started to think about training Sunday school teachers to teach more effectively, both in the mother church, but also outside to the other churches who were organizing Sunday schools. Sunday school teachers had a tendency to preach to children in a very moralizing way, and there were great opportunities to model out and teach alternative and more interactive teaching strategies. I realized that my training as an adult educator was also applicable to training Sunday school teachers as well as children, and that it made teaching more effective. Little by little, Sunday school teacher training sessions were organized as well as Bible teaching for women’s groups.
We had informally formed a group of four or five ladies from the church in the village where we lived, and we decided that we needed to go to teach the other women in the surrounding villages about Biblical stories and Biblical truths. Amongst these ladies, there was Suzanna, a short and fairly stout lady who had such a sense of humor. She was a leader and always happy to serve the church. Then there was Emelia, whose husband was fairly old and needy, but who was always willing to be part of the group. Finally, there was Elisha who was single and whose former husband had left her. I became very close to Elisha. Sometimes, when I needed additional explanation on some cultural situations, she would explain to me what was involved. When we were visiting other villages and staying there overnight, and had to share bamboo beds, she was the one with whom I would sleep.
Finally we decided to make plans to visit surrounding churches three times a week in the evenings and to teach the women there. We would usually walk to these villages – another fun learning experience. We could walk from forty-five minutes to an hour and a half in the rainforest to reach those villages. Time was not a big factor. The most important thing was to go, walk, and encourage those nearby women. During my missionary children’s vacation times, we would organize daily vacation Bible schools in villages further away where we would stay overnight, and at the same time have Bible teaching sessions for women. This was what I had thought missionary life was about, and I was experiencing it to the fullest.
However, I had not realized that there was another part of missionary life – divine personal training. During those first three years in the rainforest, away from many of the worldly distractions, the Lord took the time to talk to me. In some ways, I felt very lonely and had to face being alone with myself. It was a time when the Lord stripped me from many of the preconceived notions that I had about myself and the Christian life. I developed a hunger to read and study God’s word and to appropriate in myself many of the Biblical teachings that I had heard while growing up. I would get up very early in the mornings and study the Scriptures for hours with the commentaries that were available at the mission station with a simple kerosene lamp. The Word took new meaning for me. And the Lord revealed himself to me in new and personal ways. I went through Isaiah’s experience of somehow being led into God’s presence, but being overwhelmed by His holiness before realizing that His love even surpasses His holiness if one can say so. I was saying with Job: “I had heard about you, but now my eyes have seen you” (Job 40:5). In the loneliness and the isolation of a mission station in the middle of the rainforest, I started to realize that I have everything to learn about God Himself – and from Himself. And I also realized the dirtiness of my own heart – even when stripped from all worldly influence. It was a time of humiliation, despair sometimes, and utter disappointment about myself – but also a time when my new identity in Christ became more and more a reality for me:
“It is not me who lives, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). This was also a time where the Cross of Christ and His resurrection became so much more meaningful and personal.
This inward searching and discovering about who God is for His people led me to develop a series of teachings on the tabernacle for the women. I wanted to communicate to them what I was learning about God – and about myself, in order to anchor their faith also more deeply in Scriptural truths. Can you imagine these completely uneducated women trying to understand a bit more who God was through the study of a model of the tabernacle that our group of ladies had put together with bamboo pieces and other elements of nature that we had found? There were no digital cameras then, but we were proud of our efforts. My heart desired so much for the women to understand who really God is and that He was sufficient in His greatness so that they didn’t need to go back to their animistic practices in times of need. The church needed so badly a complete separation from that bondage in order to become stronger in their allegiance to Christ and their witness for him.
The time spent in the rainforest was drawing to a close. The missionary families needed to find a more appropriate schooling solution for their children who were in deep need for socialization and more developed cultural roots. I needed to find new direction for my life.
The main family I was working for in the rainforest moved to Kinshasa, the capital of Zaire. I was called to serve for a year in another city in Zaire called Kananga for a year to teach the children of another missionary family who happened to be my cousins. A year later, I was called to join in Kinshasa the initial family I had worked with in order to co-lead the development of a Bible correspondence center in the city.
This represented a new step in my life – the fun of the life in the bush and the rainforest was gone and I was faced with the challenges of a city of six million inhabitants. It was quite a culture shock! But all of a sudden, my administrative skills that I had been trained for several years ago came in handy: I was to organize and train a Bible correspondence center that was managing about thirty thousand students a few years later – then WITHOUT computers! Just imagine what it looked like when no electronics were available. A lot of rigor was necessary, which was not necessarily part of the cultural make-up of life in the Zairian capital. The Bible center was located in the middle of the community where all public transportation was converging – and where prostitution was thus the major activity. Music was blasting day in and day out from the bars nearby. The heat, the noise, the dust, and the music made the days at work often seem much longer than the nine to ten hours a day we would spend there – without airconditioning, of course!
I enjoyed a lot what I was doing, but felt drawn to find opportunities to teach the Scriptures. I was not allowed to do that at the Bible Center because I was a female, nor at the church for the same reason. The Lord had me meet a wonderful single Christian Zairian lady, Helena, who had just finished her Biblical studies in a Bible school in Switzerland and was coming back to lead the Scripture Union office for Kinshasa. We shared an apartment for a few years and developed a strong friendship. She made me discover that the Lord did want me to use my teaching gifts for His church and not necessarily for a section of it, and she became my role model as a female leader. Her humility, her devotion to the Lord, and her sense of humor were a wonderful influence on my life. For instance, for some reason, one day, she called me in to the
Scripture Union office for a special meeting. When I arrived, I found a large group of Scripture
Union friends gathered there for a special naming ceremony. They had decided that I needed an African name, and had decided to call me “Furaha” which in Swahili means joy. We really had a fun and wonderful evening of fellowship!
During the first few years in Kinshasa, encouraged by my sister Helena, the Lord opened many opportunities to teach with various indigenous Christian agencies or churches as well as with a couple of interdenominational Bible schools. That is when my heart for interdenominational agencies developed and when I more concretely lived the truth of the body of Christ – moving beyond the ecclesiastical separation walls that I had grown up with. I realized more deeply the meaning of the Christ’s bloodshed on the cross: it was shed to unite believers rather than to divide them.
After five years at the Bible center, I felt that I needed to withdraw from its activities and let the trained team work on its own while staying in Kinshasa. Furthermore, my financial support was diminishing and I needed to contemplate a new direction for my life. I understood more clearly the concept of ‘tent-making’ and realized that if I would earn my subsistence through a professional life, then I would be freer to serve and teach where I felt the Lord was leading me, into Bible schools and interdenominational agencies. I applied for a position as a local French teacher at The American School of Kinshasa and was readily accepted.
Three months into my first school year at the American school, a political coup (in 1991) forced the closure of the school. Although the political unrest was not directed towards foreigners, all embassies started to evacuate their citizens, and I was evacuated to France as well. Things went very quickly. There didn’t seem to be any time to think things through. The only thing that I remember having had constantly on my mind is the following question: Why don’t we, missionaries take time to pray together to look for the Lord’s direction as to whether to leave the city and the churches or not?
I left the country with the last boat and was flown to Paris by the French authorities. I stayed there for three months. As soon as the American school director gave me the OK, I was back in Kinshasa. Beside the disorder and despair that I was faced with upon my return, I was very struck by that very question that many Zairian brothers and sisters had on their minds and on their lips: “How could you, missionaries who were preaching love and compassion, abandon us in times of trouble?” It tore my heart. I confessed to the Lord and to my brothers and sisters on behalf of the missionaries that we had not been right and should have sought the face of the Lord first, before leaving. It was a very heavy time.
But little by little, the normal needs of life took over. The American school reopened in January with 12 students and had 60 students by the end of June. With another missionary colleague, and a couple of Zairian colleagues, we had become multi-subject teachers and had adjusted quite well to the needs of the small school. Security was still a major issue in the city, and I had come back with a small CB radio that I put in my car so that I could remain connected with the missionary circle in case I would get in trouble. Most of the time, though, thanks to the Bible verses on my car, my fairly fluent Lingala (the local language), and the number of policemen remembering me from the times when I was working at the Bible Center, I was able to joke my way through the police stops without trouble – thankfully so! This also taught me that no relationship is ever wasted. Who would have thought that some of these people that I followed up when I was working in the Bible Center would become the policemen that I would have to account to years later in the streets of Kinshasa?
The political scene was still very turbulent, and one Monday morning in January 1993, we heard on the radio that the airport had been taken over by the soldiers. The whole city seemed very quiet. We stayed home and listened for any bit of news we could get on BBC or VOA radio broadcasts. The unrest developed and turned out to be against foreigners. We heard that soldiers were coming up our roads, looting the houses, raping the women, etc. I was then renting an apartment with another missionary family. The husband had gone up country for ministry and the wife was home with her two children. I moved in with them. We could hear the gun shots coming closer and closer. To protect the children from fear, we turn on the VCR and had them watch Sound of Music over and over again. We didn’t have too many choices then. We gathered some news from the guards at the gate. The soldiers were really coming closer. Then an order came through the radio: All missionaries had to get ready right away by a certain time and convoy to a safe haven. We went through the motions with the children and thankfully arrived safely at the safe haven. Embassies started to evacuate their citizens again: been there – done that! I called my embassy to find out what exactly would happen if I would stay. They asked me:
“Are you married? – No. Do you have children? – No. Well, if you really want to stay, you may, but it is under your own responsibility. We are not responsible if something happens to you”. It seemed so simple.
There was not much hesitation in my mind: If I would die, not too many people would miss me. Furthermore, I was not ready to leave the church people again like last time and regret it again. After a prayerful time, I decided to stay with the church here in Kinshasa. I felt peace and release. I was able to organize my life in that very unsecure setting again and found an apartment in a more secure place. During the next few months when political unrest was extremely prevalent, the Lord used me with my Bible verse car and the CB radio to check out and encourage the Christians in the city, bring food and relief where needed, talk my way through the most insecure areas, and bring the hope of the His presence to many families in pain and distress.
We reached the International University of Grand Bassam several times since I started that story, and students have been in and out my classrooms since. But the vision has remained as I am settling now in Abidjan, with my American husband and our 23-month old second adopted baby with us in our small two-bedroom apartment on the fifth floor of an apartment building with no elevator. Rediscovering that 6-million city with my family has brought back so many memories of my former life in Kinshasa. There doesn’t seem to be much difference as everyone is struggling for survival and hoping for peaceful presidential elections after eight years of serious political unrest.
“Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain” (Ps.127: 1). A house equals a life. As the Lord has built my life through challenging internal and external circumstances, there is only one song that flows out of my heart: The Lord’s compassion has been new every morning and great is His faithfulness (Lamentations 3:22-23). His faithfulness has been renewed in spite of my inadequacies, my shortcomings, my sins. However, I am constantly wondering: As an MK teacher, a Sunday School teacher, a Bible school teacher, an American school teacher, a university teacher, a seminary teacher,… a ‘whatever’ teacher, how close does my life match what I am teaching? It is my prayer that the Lord grant me the grace to become more and more the servant-teacher that He has modeled out here on earth, with His towel and His basin.
Questions for Personal Reflection and Group Study